Shepherd Snyder Published

Shepherd University Football Team Sees Four Student-Athletes Sign Pro Contracts

An American football and a helmet on a grass

Four football players from NCAA Division II Shepherd University were signed as priority free agents following this year’s NFL Draft. It’s a record for the comparatively small football program.

Quarterback Tyson Bagent signed with the Chicago Bears, offensive lineman Joey Fisher signed with the San Francisco 49ers, Ronnie Brown signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and tight end Brian Walker signed with the Baltimore Ravens. 

“It’s very difficult to even get to where they are, and they need to take advantage of what opportunities they do have,” Shepherd football coach Ernie McCook said. “I always joke that it’s like, you just want to get keys to the facility.”

All four were previously selected as members of the Associated Press’ Division II All-American team. Bagent was selected as the 2021 recipient of the Harlon Hill trophy, Division II football’s equivalent of the Heisman.

McCook says getting to the level where a smaller school can consistently produce NFL prospects is a combination of culture and recruiting. The school relies on talent from in and around the Eastern Panhandle.

“Every one of those players that have signed with NFL teams are all within a two-and-a-half-hour radius of our institution,” McCook said. “And I think we do a good job and create a culture where good players know that they can play football at a high level, they can play where football is important and have a chance to compete.”

The Rams made it to the national championship semifinals last season, before losing to the Colorado School of Mines. 

“If you were to ask any one of those four guys that just signed, ‘What’s your biggest regret,’ it’s not winning a national championship,” McCook said. “So we have a desire to be great in this program.”

Elsewhere in the state, Huntington native and offensive tackle Darnell Wright was selected tenth in the draft by the Chicago Bears. He went to the University of Tennessee to play for the Volunteers.

WVU defensive end Dante Stills, originally from Fairmont, was also selected by the Arizona Cardinals as the 213th pick in the draft. His brother, Darius, and father, Gary, also played for the Mountaineers before making their way to the NFL. Marshall players Steven Gilmore and Khalen Laborn were also offered free agent contracts.

But both schools are considered Division I, playing in the upper tiers of college football and having access to the money and resources that come with that designation. With NFL-prospect level talent coming out of the much smaller Shepherd University, its athletic department could attract more notoriety – and future recruits.

“Everything that we can sell positively on our football team, we want to be able to do,” McCook said. “Having a pro day the way we did, having four players that were able to sign preferred free agent contracts with the NFL makes other kids look at it like, ‘Hey, man, I can have a shot if I go to Shepherd.’ And that’s what we want to do.”